Fit as a jockey: How the men and women in the saddle stay in shape

Story highlights

  • Jockey fitness can be a key factor in how racehorses perform
  • Long gone are the days of beer and champagne before races
  • Jockeys operating in UK must pass a stringent fitness test to receive license

Newmarket, England (CNN)As horses saunter around the parade ring of England's Newmarket Racecourse, punters gather to look for hints of fitness and form. Picking a winner in this game can make for a lucrative afternoon after all.

Of seemingly less concern to the assorted crowd, however, is the shape of the jockeys who will soon be poised atop of these half-ton animals out on the track.
    A quick glance at the race program reveals details of form for horses, trainers and the distance they've had to travel. Yet the mental and physical sharpness of the men and women in the saddle -- all of whom naturally appear slender and short to the untrained eye -- can also impact how the horses perform.
    "You need the whole body to be strong," says Yariv Kam, a fitness coach at the nearby British Racing School.
    Trying to control a sizable animal that can reach speeds of 40 miles per hour places huge demands on the human body. Kam also explains how staying in prime physical condition can help prevent injury, improve decision making when tiredness sets in and make it easier for racers to meet strict weight demands.
    In a sport of fine margins, it can also mean the difference between winning and losing.
    "When you ride something like 10 rides a day (as jockeys often do) ... it's very important that you perform in the last one as you perform in the first one," Kam adds.

    Down with beer

    Such unwavering commitment to conditioning hasn't always been the forte of the jockey. Stories of champagne being shared around the locker room sauna and riders downing bottles of beer before heading onto the course are the stuff of racing legend.
    Yet according to flat rider and 2015 Stobart Champion Apprentice Jockey, Tom Marquand, a boozy program like this wouldn't get you very far in the modern game.
    "It's just getting more and more competitive. You can't get away with things like that," Marquand says as he prepares for an afternoon race at Newmarket in a gym at the British Racing School.
    Hayley Turner, a now retired flat jockey who rode over 750 winners throughout her career, concurs. She states "it's just too competitive now" to be anything other than supremely fit and focused.
    "(Jockeys) need to be strong to be able to control the horse ... you need the strength to hold them together," Turner says.
    "You need strong legs, particularly when you're pushing them. A strong core is also quite important as then you've got your spine and your pelvis to keep everything in line and in balance.
    "And when you're running out of breath you need the endurance as well. There's so much to it that people don't realize," Turner adds.

    Full body workout

    These days, jockeys are required to pass a fitness test, like the one Kam puts on at the British Racing School, if they want to be granted a professional license.
    The test is no cakewalk -- as this correspondent found out while miserably failing it -- utilizing targeted exercises to focus on muscle groups that are integral to racehorse riding.
    An intensive pull band routine is part of Yariv Kam's fitness test at the British Racing school.
    A bleep test to assess cardio fitness is swiftly followed by leg raises, squats, held press ups, pull band routines, the plank and exercises on a mechanical horse.
    A scoring system awards points for the amount of time a participant can perform each individual exercise. Anything less than a final score of 70% equates to a fail for a professional.
    To give an impression of the test's difficulty level, holding the notoriously brutal plank exercise for a full three minutes is considered average.
    "You can't say, 'I need to be really strong (in just the) upper body' as you have to be balanced," Kam says. "Your whole body is working when you ride. It's not like tennis players that think, 'I can leave the left arm, I'm not doing much with it.'"

    Making weight

    Marquand, who was in the mix to claim back-to-back titles in The Stobart Apprentice Jockeys Championship before turning fully professional, stays in shape and keeps his weight down by regularly running, cycling and riding between races.
    Flat jockeys in the UK cannot be any lighter than 53 kg (116.8 lbs) but, the closer to the weight they can be the better to lessen the load carried by the horse.
    Although he navigates Kam's fitness test with consummate ease, Marquand says it's rare that he or any other jockey would be able to fit in a workout such as this during the season.
    "In the middle of the summer (when the flat racing season is in full swing) you'd be doing well to fit in any exercising," he says. "You're riding out, race riding, running to the next meeting, coming home. You're home at midnight then up at 5 am and it's time to ride out again."
    Too much work in the gym, he adds, can also lead to aches and pains that are liable to hinder a rider. The body can also fill out, becoming more muscular and increasing weight.

    Dawn of data?

    Kam's course and test scores are added to a database for future reference. Roughly 10% of those who take part do not pass, he says.
    Most riders will then return to Kam around three or four times in their career, he says. The main reasons for doing so are generally if they are looking to build up strength when recovering from injury or seeking for advice on how to improve in specific areas.
    This means the data he retains can be useful in formulating a program or looking at how a rider has developed over the course of his or her career.
    An increased use of data in horse racing is also something Kam believes will become prevalent in the years to come.
    Perhaps these numbers will also soon inform the punters assessing horses around the parade ring.